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Health insurance a key topic in Willmar legislative forum

WILLMAR -- In the last public forum to be held before the Nov. 8 general election, candidates from local legislative races met Friday in Willmar to answer questions during an event sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

Sawatzky and Baker
Candidates in House District 17B discussed health insurance premiums and transportation funding Friday during a forum sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. From left are Mary Sawatzky and Rep. Dave Baker. (Photos by Briana Sanchez)

WILLMAR - In the last public forum to be held before the Nov. 8 general election, candidates from local legislative races met Friday in Willmar to answer questions during an event sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

There was considerable agreement and minimal sparring on issues between the candidates, which included District 17 Sen. Lyle Koenen, DFL-Clara City, and his GOP opponent Andrew Lang of Olivia, and House District 17B Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, and his DFL opponent Mary Sawatzky of Willmar.

This is a repeat performance for Baker and Sawatzky.

Two years ago Baker defeated Sawatzky by 214 votes in District 17B, which includes nearly all of Kandiyohi County.

Sawatzky, who is seeking to reclaim the seat, said long-term transportation, bringing broadband internet to the district and fixing the "fractured" health insurance system are her top priorities. She said legislators need to "quit the finger pointing" and take action to bring home results.

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Baker, who said he is one of the few small business owners serving in the Legislature, said he has a "good voice" talking with people on both sides of the political aisle and wants to go back to St. Paul to complete things that didn't get done this year, including transportation funding and addressing the rising health insurance costs.

Baker said health care costs are in a "crisis" and the MnSURE health insurance exchange should not have been approved. But since the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land, he said "we can't just ignore it" and the state must find a way to reduce the cost to Minnesotans who buy individual health insurance plans but aren't eligible for the federal subsidy. "We're going to fix health care. We have to," he said.

Sawatzky said the Legislature needs to reconvene as soon as the election is over to find solutions to the health care rate increases and demand more transparency by the insurance and pharmaceutical companies. She said Gov. Dayton and the DFL caucus have plans to resolve the problem but that she "hasn't seen a plan from the GOP yet."

By way of explaining what the state insurance exchange is, Koenen said blaming MnSURE for the high costs is like blaming a refrigerator for how expensive the food is inside it.

Koenen said he's advocating for a special session to discuss Dayton's proposal to reduce the costs to individuals by 25 percent. He would also consider eliminating MnSURE and going with the national exchange instead, if it would be cheaper and have better technology than the state's system.

Lang said it doesn't matter if people call the program MnSURE, the Affordable Care Act or a refrigerator, it is "rotten" and an example of the government getting its "fingers" in health care that's resulting in people losing their insurance coverage.

Lang said the governor's plans are "stopgap" measures and other options, like letting cooperatives form insurance groups, might provide better solutions.

Developing a long-term transportation plan, estimated at $600 million each year for the next decade, will take a variety of funding mechanisms and not just "taking from one pot of money and putting it into another," said Sawatzky, who said she helped get funds two years ago to make state Highway 23 shovel-ready but the Legislature failed to pass a bill this year to carry out those plans.

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Baker said he was disappointed transportation and bonding bills failed and said "nothing is off the table" regarding future transportation funding. He also urged the Chamber of Commerce to use its leadership to promote a transportation package.

All four candidates touted their independent streak and commitment to vote for what's right for their constituents and not necessarily their party.

Sawatzky said she wants transparency in the policy-making process and doesn't want the state Legislature to "follow in the footsteps of our federal government" in terms of gridlock.

Baker said both parties are to blame for inaction. "We own it," said Baker, who said he wants to change deadlines for action on bills to prevent last-minute chaos.

Koenen, who listed off some of his recent legislative accomplishments, said no matter which party controls the House and Senate, compromise will be necessary, which means everyone will see something they don't like in legislation.

Koenen said he's running for re-election to "represent the values and interest in our part of the state."

Lang, who has never held public office before and said campaigning has been an "interesting adventure," said he's running for office because he has been "disheartened, disappointed and surprised" with past legislative action and what may be coming in the future.

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Lang and Koenen
Candidates in Senate District 17 discussed health insurance premiums Friday during a forum sponsored by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. From top left are Andrew Lan and Sen. Lyle Koenen. (Photos by Briana Sanchez)

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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